By Pete Williams
OCALA -In the last two years, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, and Spartan Race each have emerged as $40 million businesses, each weekend drawing between 10,000 and 20,000 athletes willing to pay between $100 and up to race, along with $10 parking fees and additional charges for post-race food.
It’s a business model with a high profit margin. Not surprisingly, numerous imitators have sprung up around the country.
Think you can put on an obstacle race? You might want to talk to Donny Jones.
Jones is the race director of the Ragin’ Warrior Challenge, which attracted just 96 athletes this morning to the Florida Horse Park. Half of those bought discounted entries via Groupon. Judging by the reviews posted on the race’s Facebook page, a number still felt they overpaid.
Jones admits he didn’t do as thorough a job of planning as he would have liked and didn’t get nearly enough volunteers to show. It didn’t help that his team was not allowed to start setting up obstacles until Wednesday. As a result, the course wasn’t well marked and many athletes ended up running just 6.5 miles of the 10.8-mile course, thus missing five obstacles and all of the water stops.
“I dropped the ball and have no excuses,” Jones said. “Our prep time wasn’t long enough. There were a lot of things we planned on that we couldn’t do. I’m embarrassed at what happened and I want people to know I didn’t just throw this together to make money. I lost $6,500 on this and I hope this doesn’t kill my business.”
The Ragin’ Warrior was hyped as the toughest obstacle race on the planet, the one that would make Tough Mudder and Spartan Race look like fun runs. Jones planned to create a military-style obstacle course with challenges never before seen in the category.
The Ragin’ Warrior showed promise. Less than 100 yards from the start, Jones set up a double version of Tough Mudder’s notorious Chernobyl Jacuzzi: a pair of 30-yard dumpsters lined back. Unfortunately, only half the expected ice showed up and the plunge wasn’t very cold. (Some athletes got in after the race to cool off.)
After the ice plunge, athletes took a right turn into the woods and ran another 100 yards before reaching a dead end. Jones said it was marked with a U-Turn, but apparently not clearly enough. Either way, it set the tone for a course that would leave athletes guessing through most of the morning. (I didn’t run myself, having gotten injured last week at the Spartan Race in Miami, but was able to follow the race via golf cart.)
At one point, athletes dealt with “Shock and Awe,” crawling under barbwire while a 50-caliber machine gun fired compressed air overhead. Smoke grenades went off and someone even sprayed a hose for good measure. Jones had hoped to stage “Mount Ragin’,” two metal cargo containers stacked to form a 17-foot obstacle athletes must climb with ropes, but that was not allowed for insurance reasons.
Another “Barrel Bridge” obstacle required athletes to walk across quickly like in lumberjack competitions, but most misinterpreted it and just belly-flopped across. “The goal was to have a volunteer at each of those,” Jones said.
Jones said the Florida Horse Park would not let him set up obstacles until several days before, which explains why many of the obstacles were steeplechase-like challenges horses deal with during the property’s many equestrian events. The facilities manager told anyone who would listen that he has a major event coming up next month and was concerned about obstacles leaving holes that big-money horses might step in.
Jones has pledged on his Facebook page to give free entries and gas cards to Florida participants to his upcoming Georgia race, tentatively scheduled for May 26, though he says he could push it back to make sure he gets everything right.
“Next time, I’ll have it set up two weeks in advance and will let anyone who wants to see it beforehand,” Jones says. “It made me sick to my stomach to see what happened today and I know you don’t always get a second chance. The last thing you want to do is lead people on and not live up to the hype. I know I let 96 people down and I’m determined to give them the ultimate obstacle experience next time.”
Here’s hoping it works, though athletes show little patience for subpar obstacle races, which as a group charge big money when compared to half-marathons and triathlons.
Last year the Iron Crusader debuted in Fort Meade but will not be back. The Champions Mud Bash canceled a proposed second race and does not have one scheduled for 2012. The Florida Dirty Duo, which debuted in 2006, canceled its race last year. This year, Muddy Buddy pulled its two races out of Florida, though it would have returned to Disney’s Wide World of Sports had Disney not banned outside promoters from putting on endurance events there.
Maybe one will get a shot at using the Florida Horse Park, a well-manicured, 500-acre slice of Old Florida ideal for obstacle racing, though it’s tough to imagine it wanting to host another event after today. One thing Jones and the facilities manager seemed to agree on is that park officials aren’t too excited to host obstacle racing.
Still, it’s listed as the site for Hero Rush, a firefighter-themed obstacle race series, on Nov. 3.